Ego Inflation

May 18, 2011

My PhD Graduation, Thackeray Club, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. Angelia N. Levy

May 18th. Another year, fourteen years now, in fact. I’ve been Dr. Collins to my students and the world of academia officially for that long. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about the values and limits of having a doctorate in history over the course of the past decade and a half. One of them is how easily egos are inflated by it. And everything else gets inflated in the process of having an ego that could challenge the Himalayas for supremacy.

One of the more stunning and thoughtful moments I had during the graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon on that hot and sticky Sunday in ’97 — besides the dreadful realization that my own mother was jealous of me — was shaking Peter Stearns‘ hand on stage. The Napoleonic red-and-white-haired Stearns — currently the university provost at George Mason — was the Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences at

Provost Peter N. Stearns, George Mason University, 2008. Source:

Carnegie Mellon at the time. Having to touch his rough yet clammy right hand as they read off the names of the doctorates that afternoon brought back quite a few not-so-pleasant memories of why I found Carnegie Mellon a terrible elitist (as opposed to elite) school to attend for four years.

I’d most recently co-presented with Stearns on how to successfully finish a doctorate that March, which wasn’t so unpleasant. Except for the fact that most of his presentation was off-the-cuff ego-stroking. Except that the lessons learned from writing a dissertation in six weeks in ’64 were mostly irrelevant to the students in front of us that day. Except that I already knew that Stearns was equally polite and dismissive of my presentation by proxy.

Too bad hand sanitizers — or as my son Noah calls them, hanitizers — were in their infancy in ’97. For as I shook Stearns’ hand, the memory that crept to the fore was my other experience working with the man, when I was a teaching assistant for two sections of his world-famous World Stereotypes, oops, World History course in the fall of ’94. He spent lecture after lecture entertaining mostly White college freshman with dirty jokes about beer and sex in covering World History Plato-to-NATO style. I spent most of my teaching time attempting to refocus my group of students away from stereotyping South Asian women as “demur” and Arab men as horn dogs.

Then the end of that semester came, and I turned in all of my grades. I had a few students with D’s and F’s because they had failed their exams, or hadn’t shown up for class really, or both. One of those students was a White male freshman who’d only been to class twice, had failed one exam and barely passed his final. I received an email from Stearns two days before the end of the semester ordering me to change the student’s grade from an F to a C. The reason: “[h]e’s a good kid…he showed up for a couple of my sections…” [emphasis added]. I send an email back that basically read, “So?” Stearns repeated his order to change the grade, in person, which meant that I needed to change the grades of five other students so that their grades weren’t worse than the student that Stearns had coddled.

It was the one and only time I found myself inflating grades. That exchange confirmed so much that I heard and suspected about the father of college-level World History. Stearns was mercurial, egotistical and played favorites, who somehow were usually White and often male. I knew of at least one former grad student who’d all but been blackballed from finding academic jobs because of him. I also knew that he arbitrarily provided vastly different pay levels to grad students and instructors when he was the history department chair.

Denholm Elliott in A Room With A View, 1985. Source:

When my future wife first saw Stearns in ’96 at some history department conference in which my then advisor Joe Trotter forced me to do a presentation, she said that the five-foot-four man looked like the late British actor Denholm Elliott, especially from the movie A Room With A View (1985). That’s really in insult to Elliott. A better comparison would be between the actor who played the emperor in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Or, more specifically, like the late actor Jack Nance’s character Nefud from Dune (1984). Very mean of me, I suppose, not to mention, a digression.

As I began to walk off the stage after shaking Stearns’ hand, I felt agitated, and thought of all that I’d gone through with him and with Carnegie Mellon in general. Ultimately, like the characters I mentioned above, Stearns was and remains an imperialist, building an academic empire in his image and crushing all opposition (real and imagined) along the way. His legacy will be the multiplication of inflated student egos who believe they understand the world but instead really only understand how to see the world in their own egocentric ways.

Jack Nance as Nefud in Dune, 1984. Source:

The Contrarian One

February 15, 2011

Sting as Feyd-Rautha in David Lynch's Dune, July 20, 2007. TAnthony. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because this is a low-resolution screenshot illustrating a character which is a subject in the article that uses it, and by nature no free version exists.

For the most part, I have protected the privacy of my childhood classmates and friends by not calling them by their actual names in this blog. I have used pseudonyms, code names like “Crush #1″ or “Crush #2,” code letters based on their position in my cohort or how I saw them growing up. I don’t apply these rules to the adults I interacted with because they were public figures, authority figures really. That’s been one of my unofficial journalist-esque rules for this blog, and I’m sticking to it.

In this case, however, I’m pushing the envelope a bit. Even though I have no plans on using a name today, I’m using some initials of a former classmate that almost none of my readers will know. But for those that went through Humanities with me and read this post, the initials may make this person obvious. This classmate — and friend, I guess — was one of the few free thinkers I knew in my Humanities days. He wasn’t just smart — we were all smart. He fashioned himself an intellectual, someone who either thought against the grain or refused to get caught up in what he considered the daily stupid stress sandwich of grades, awards, and more grades that was our magnet program. Most of all, the kid was a contrarian, the one and only JD.

Just like with most of my classmates, I didn’t get along with him at first. He immediate came off to me as someone who saw himself above the fray, maybe even better than the rest of us. It didn’t help that JD introduced himself as “half-Russian, one-quarter French and one-quarter English” that first day of seventh grade nearly thirty years ago. For most of the first year, I thought that his persona was an act, an attempt at upper-crust coolness. I didn’t understand how girls — White and Black — liked this guy, zits and all.

Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, May 18, 2007. Source:

At various times during our Humanities days, his looks were compared to Sting, and later, MacGyver — actor Richard Dean Anderson’s most famous character. I’m sure that he liked the comparisons. If you meshed the two, you’d maybe end up with a JD, but probably about two inches shorter than the real life person.

At first, I didn’t think that he was all that smart. After all, we ended up in a fight over my outburst of laughter because he said Australians spoke “Australian” instead of English. I always wondered why we fought this week, of all weeks (twenty-nine years ago this week, by the way). It wasn’t as if we hadn’t annoyed each other before. Eventually I did begin to get Mr. OshKosh, as I called JD in my mind — and occasionally, out loud — during our Davis years. He was a deliberate individual, often trying too hard to be one. It was obvious to me that he thought the whole Humanities thing was a joke, that he found school a Sisyphean effort.

Still, even though we had fought — and I somehow managed to win against the karate kid — we’d get caught up in weird intellectual conversations about communism versus capitalism, or about America’s endless cultural corruption. JD would always take the most extreme view of America the ugly, leaving me no choice other than to argue with him or to agree with him, depending on the severity of his argument. He was a devout atheist, at least in argument, indirectly questioning my Hebrew-Israelite and, later on, early Christian beliefs. That he made me question what I thought I believed and what I actually did believe, I appreciated even at the time. I also got the sense that he was constantly questioning his world while casting doubt in my direction.

It was part of the dissatisfaction that I sensed in him all during our six years together in Mount Vernon’s schools. I didn’t know how much of it came from his home life, but my guess by the middle of high school was that we only saw a tip of a very large iceberg for six and half hours a day and five days a week. What was more obvious, at least to me, was that he seemed comfortable in his uncomfortability at Mount Vernon High School, with the flight of his White classmates in ninth and tenth grade, with the hypocrisy of Humanities as academic light in a sea of ignorance while ignoring the elephants in the room.

Despite holding many of his most private cards to his vest, JD was probably one of the five most honest people I knew in all of my education. His body language, his lack of interest in most things in the classroom, his varied cultural and intellectual interests outside of the classroom, his dating habits all but betrayed his closed-mouthness when it came to who he understood himself to be. He was, and has remained, my favorite contrarian.


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